‘Tis the season for play adaptations, as the recent releases of “Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon” can attest to. Adapted from his own 2005 Tony-winning play, writer/director John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is one of those movies that you come away from thinking mainly about the strength of the performances. For my review of “Doubt,” click here.
Peter Morgan’s Tony award-winning 2007 play “Frost/Nixon” has been adapted by the screenwriter into a movie by director Ron Howard, and although the performances are less showy than those in “Doubt,” the movie employs a talking-head interview style that made me wonder why I wasn’t watching a documentary about the original David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews.
In March of 1977, British talk show host David Frost got the only public apology out of Richard Nixon for the Watergate scandal in a series of 12 days of interviews he conducted with the disgraced U.S. president. Morgan’s film fictionalizes some events (reducing the number of days to four and inventing an important late-night phone call Nixon makes to Frost) for drama’s sake and aptly makes the point that this unlikely event occurred only because the Nixon team underestimated his interviewer.
Unlike “Doubt,” the actors who starred in the Broadway production also appear in the movie. Frank Langella channels the drained but alert spirit of Nixon, while Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in Morgan’s “The Queen”) embodies TV personality and playboy Frost.
While Howard shows Frost jumping through hoops and virtually going broke to pay Nixon for the interviews, members of Frost’s political research team (played by Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and Matthew Macfadyen) are shown sitting for direct-address interviews. Discussing their candid thoughts and the challenges that face the team in preparation, I wondered where the documentary is that shows the actual participants recounting their experiences. (The interview itself is available on DVD.)
What Morgan has done is wrap up the entire event into a nice little dramatic ball like any good piece of fiction. Each man is looking for a knockout, and the final interview is the really the title bout. Nixon wants to change his public image for the better, and Frost wants to back him into a corner and get an admission of guilt. It’s a formula that serves movies well, and Howard ramps up the suspense as well as can be expected from a situation of which the outcome is already known.
Howard’s close-ups allow us to get views of the movie interview that don’t exist in the real interview, and Morgan’s shaping of the events surrounding the interview give some interesting perspective. The play itself was all about the role of the media, featuring a stack of video monitors constant reminding the audience that the presentation was as important as the content.
Because of the flat, reality-style presentation of the movie, I still couldn’t help but wondering why I was watching a movie based on a play based on a TV interview. And while I normally don’t complain too much about facts getting distorted in movies for better drama, Howard’s format inherently seems like it’s trying to pass itself off as reality, and that really bugged me.
At its best, “Frost/Nixon” made me hope for a documentary covering the same topic with choice clips from the actual interview.